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Friday, February 26, 2016

Genealogical Insight: Strategies for Researching Local Court Records

By Todd McDougal - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
All the court records in the world are of no use to genealogists unless they are known and available. Once a researcher becomes aware of the existence of a type of documents, the next major issue is whether or not the documents are available and if so, can the researcher access them. Court documents are good example of a class of documents that are really valuable if your ancestors had involvement in court actions and not much use if they did not. The challenge with this class of documents is the same: you may not know if your ancestor was involved in a court action unless you search the records. The general rule concerning all types of genealogical research is that you must always assume that the documents concerning your ancestors are always there. To believe otherwise would defeat the entire reason for doing research in the first place.

The main consideration with court records is that your ancestors could have participated in a court action, from a lawsuit, to an adoption to a naturalization to a probate or any other type of action, from anyplace and at anytime in the entire history of their involvement in America. 

It may seem simplistic, but you look for court records in the courts where your ancestors may have had contact with a court. This makes things interesting from a research standpoint. To begin, you need to have a basic knowledge about the history of courts in America and particularly during the time period your ancestors were part of that history. In conjunction with a good background in history, you need to be adequately familiar with legal terminology. If you do identify a lawsuit or other court action involving your ancestors, you may need to do even more investigation into the specific terminology that is involved with the type of action. For example, if your ancestor was involved in a probate action, you need to know some basic things about probate to understand what happened with the action in the court. The records that come from the court proceedings do not come with instructions or translations of the very complex terminology involved.

Any search for court records should begin online. Some courts have all of their records digitized and available. Some of the older records may be in the large online genealogical databases, but don't assume because you have searched genealogical sources that your search is complete. Courts don't preserve their records for the benefit of genealogists. They preserve their records for the legal community, such as lawyers and judges, the records may only be available online through legal channels. You might enlist the help of a friendly attorney to help you understand how to search for the records. On the other hand, you do need to realize that not all attorneys are competent researchers or even know anything about going to court and court records. Most attorneys are specialists in some areas and know little about other parts of the law. 

Once you have exhausted your online options, you need will need to start at the top and look for federal court cases in the U.S. National Archives Court Records page. You may be interested in state and local records, but you can never know if your ancestors' cases ended up in the federal courts.

Even if your ancestor's potential involvement with a court occurred hundreds of years ago, you should begin your investigation with the present-day courts in existence in the place where they lived. Courts are extremely conservative. It is possible that the records have stayed in the same court for a very long time. It is also possible that even if the court no longer has the records, that the someone in the court, usually the clerk of the court, will know if the records have been preserved and where they might be located. It is usually possible to contact the court by telephone or email. Even though contacting the present-day court may not work out, you should not assume automatically that the records are no longer available. I would start at the state level and contact the State Archive or Library. In some states they are the same organization and in other states they are separate. It is also possible that the records were given to a state or local college or university and are sitting in a special collections library somewhere in the state. 

After all is said and done, court records, once they are transferred out of the control of the originating court or are no longer deemed useful, are exactly like any other records. The records could be sitting in boxes in a court basement or attic. At the other extreme, as I pointed out above, they could also be digitized and online for free. Both extremes are not just possible but likely as are any other disposition of the documents you can imagine. 

If you talk to someone at the court by telephone or email, you should always ask the question if they are the person who would best be able to answer your question about where the court documents might be located. Don't expect explanations or help from court personnel. They may be "public servants" but they are told over and over again not to give out legal advice to anyone and that often spills over into being rather short. You must also understand that they are not in the business of helping people look for records. If you are not an attorney or a client or someone in the midst of a law action, you are not really considered to be someone who should be in the courthouse. If you go to visit a courthouse, you need to know that many courthouses in the United States today have extensive security systems and you may have to remove a coat, belt or shoes or both to get into the courthouse. Also anything you carry into the courthouse will be subject to a search. Once you are in a courthouse, the people to talk to work for the Clerk of the Court. This might be one person or a whole department. Judges or other court personnel may or may not know where the records are kept, but it is not their job to help you.

In all this, it helps to know what you are looking for. Many courts maintain extensive indexes of their court actions and you might want to search for an index either online or at the courthouse. While you are at a courthouse, don't forget to search land and property records, water records, and any other records they might have available. It doesn't hurt to ask. 

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